British Radicalism and the French Revolution, 1789-1815

British Radicalism and the French
Revolution, 1789-1815
• Introduction
• Early intellectual reactions to the Revolution
• Radicalism and the origin of working-class
• Loyalism and popular conservatism
• Conclusion
Popular Radicalism and Loyalism
• 1789-1815 events in France polarised public opinion
• Built on extra-parliamentary reform movement &
debate on popular conservatism/loyalism that
emerged during American revolution.
• Events in France revived popular radicalism &
debates on constitution
• Reactions to revolution stimulated the growth of
militant loyalism
Popular radicalism revived?
• Some common factors with earlier reform movements
• But movement spread much further down the social
scale and was influential in a wider geographical area,
not merely confined to the capital.
• Based claims on historic rights of Englishmen under the
ancient constitution.
• JGA Pocock viewed debate as struggle between Whig
ancient constitutionalists, notably Burke, and new
• Isaac Kramnick disagreed terming Paine, Priestley and
Price as pursuing a new Liberal ideal.
Richard Price
• In 1789 Dr. Richard Price, a Unitarian minister
preached a largely innocuous sermon "On the Love
of Country." (commemorating 1688)
• Congratulated French National Assembly, for opening
new possibilities for religious and civil freedom
• Price spoke of being a citizen of the world with the
rights that citizenship implied.
• Argued for doctrine of perfectability – that world can
be made better through human effort. Justified
social reform
Richard Price (1723-1791)
Unitarian Minister,
philosopher, political
Burke haunting Richard Price: Smelling out a rat; - or - the atheisticalrevolutionist disturbed in his midnight calculations by James Gillray, published
by Hannah Humphrey, 3 December 1790
Edmund Burke’s response: 1790
• Responded with Reflections on Revolution in France
• Argued overthrow of authority in France would bring
chaos and disorder. He denied Price's assertions of
natural rights and doctrine of perfectability.
• Viewed himself as moderate. Argued Reflections had
gradualist reform agenda
• Reformers in France should recognise Europe was
already improving
• Praised reforming institutions eg Church, arts, commerce
and the landed gentry.
Edmund Burke
Portrait by Joshua
Reynolds, 1774
Burke’s Assessment of the causes
of revolution
• Interactions of three interests:
a) literary cabal (Rousseau, Voltaire etc) determined
to attack religion and with it the entire establishment
b) politicians who wished to build France into a world
power via a republic
c) government of Louis XVI abetted revolutionaries
were abetted by the stupidity of the court.
• France was out of control and incapable of correcting
Burke’s predictions on the
consequences of the revolution
1) predicted a deterioration into military
2) That France would attack her neighbours
3) That only outside intervention could reverse
the situation
4) He suggested nations of Europe should
launch a pre-emptive invasion of France to
restore the old order
Response to Burke:Mary
• Member of Price’s congregation wrote: A
Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in
• Presented Burke as former reformer, grown old
and confused, basically a good man but one
corrupted by the English establishment.
• Argued for rights of civil and religious liberty.
Aristocracy displaced in France was decadent.
Response to Burke: Wollstonecraft
• Criticized Burke's sympathy for women of the
displaced aristocracy in France – particularly
his eulogising of Marie Antoinette – as
selective, ignoring the many more thousands
of women who suffered under the old regime
• She supported his notion of gradualism of
• Considered the present as a prelude to a
brighter age
Mary Wollstonecraft
Portrait by John Opie,
c. 1797
Wollstonecraft’s later writing
• Burke and MW disagree on views of reason, equality,
feminism and education
• In 1791 wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Extended arguments about the need and value of
female emancipation.
• In 1792 visited France and challenged her own earlier
arguments with a more reserved optimism.
• Published An Historical and Moral View of the Origin
and Progress of the French Revolution, an attempt to
reconcile her horror at the blood of the Revolution with
her faith in perfectability.
Tom Paine
• Propagandist for American patriots, wrote
Common Sense in 1776
• Rights of Man (1791 and 1792)written as
defence of the French Revolution and its
principles (liberty, equality, fraternity)
• Was in Europe when revolution broke out.
• Rights of Man was more than answer to Burke
• Also statement of philosophy of all democratic
• In two years it sold over 200,000 copies
'The rights of man; or - Tommy Paine, the
little American taylor,
taking the measure of
the crown, for a new
pair of revolutionbreeches‘ by James
Gillray, published
by Hannah Humphrey, 23
May 1791
First edition from
Eighteenth Century
Collections Online.
Title Search on
Rights of Man
returns 196 titles
The Rights of Man and the demand for
constitutional and social change.
• In Part 1 Paine made distinction between absolute
monarchy & constitutional monarchy.
• In Part 2 he maintained all traditional forms of
governments were “creatures of imagination” relying
on the “romantic and barbarous distinction of making
men into kings and subjects”.
• Advocated abolition of all monarchy and the
establishment of democratic republics based on
universal manhood suffrage.
• Also social measures for young, sick and old
• Demanded removal of legislation restricting wages of
Making of the English Working Class?
E. P. Thompson’s argument
• 1790s was crucial period for formation of working class
political consciousness because of proliferation of radical
societies and the ideology of Paineite radicalism.
• This strand of political radicalism had potential for
revolutionary activity. They did not wither in repressive
1790s but merely transferred their activities
• Was continuity - in both ideas and personnel - between
the radical movements of the 1790s and the re-emerging
parliamentary reform movements of the early 1800s.
• 1790s had seen ‘something like an English revolution… of
profound importance in shaping the consciousness of
the post-war working-class’.
Evidence: societies committed to
overhaul the status quo
• Most active radical responses came from centres of
Dissent and emerging commercial activity such as
London, Norwich, Birmingham, Sheffield and
• Some major setbacks: in Birmingham were antiDissent riots in 1791 which hounded the dissenting
minister and scientist, Joseph Priestley to America
• By the mid-1790s were around 80 popular political
reform societies in England and Wales.
Radical Societies
• London Corresponding Society founded in January
1792 comprised of as many as 90 divisions at its peak
in 1795.
• Societies sometimes dominated by middle-class
reformers but in places such as London, Sheffield and
Norwich they were artisan based.
• LCS members were mainly from London skilled trades
Radical Societies
• In Sheffield the Society for Constitutional
Information had 2000 members by 1792
drawn mainly from independent artisans in
the craft metal trades.
• In Norwich were around 40 small tavern clubs
and a radical intellectual journal, The Cabinet.
• Most societies espoused a radical programme
of reform and social issues
Society Alarmed "
by James Gillray
(April, 1798)
Report to Lords
on the activities
of radical and
reform societies.
The LCS and SCI
are accused of
undermining the
constitution by
sympathetic to
Tom Paine's
Rights of Man.
Both groups were
infiltrated by
government spies
and in May 1794
their leaders
were arrested.
Papers (19 May
• Scotland responded with radicalism: narrowness of the
Scottish franchise and intellectual & political culture in the
Scottish cities.
• Scottish reform movement was active in 1780s: were 46
petitions for burgh reform presented to Parliament in
• July 1792 the Society for the Friends of the People was
formed in Edinburgh. 1792 also saw first General
Convention of the Friends of the People in Scotland led by
Thomas Muir, an Edinburgh advocate.
• Following the French victories at Valmy and Jemappes,
Trees of Liberty were planted in many Scottish towns and
cities to demonstrate support for the French cause.
Getting the message out: radical
Mostly reformers used moderate, legitimate tactics.
• LCS producing pamphlet, Reformers No Rioters in 1794 to
counter any suggestion that it was prepared to use violence
to obtain its ends.
• Used political education & petitioning.
• Proposed convention in London in 1794 led to the arrest
and trial of the leaders of the metropolitan reform societies
on charges of high treason.
• Treason trial was the high-point for the radical reformers.
John Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke were
publicly tried on several counts of treason and were
sensationally acquitted.
• But resulted in government oppression.
• Conservative reaction sprang from the same cause as
radical movement: pride in supposed historic liberties
and constitution of the British people.
• Contrasted ‘British’ system with continental neighbours.
• Government deliberately encouraged the foundation of
loyalist groups but scale of movement was without
precedent in the eighteenth century.
• Popular response was helped by the development of
conservative ideology
Popular Conservatism
• Articulated by eg William Paley, Hannah More and John
• Appealed to utility, morality, natural law, religion,
history etc.
• More wrote simple but virulently conservative texts
designed to appeal to a mass audience and win them
round to a patriotic defence of British institutions.
• Cheap Repository Tracts sold 2 million copies between
1795 and 1798.
• Conservative propagandists tried to instil an acceptance
of social distinction and pride in constitution and
• Conservative newspapers and periodicals
outnumbered and outsold radical literature
• London papers: Star, Sun, True Briton and Observer
Provinces: York Courant, Liverpool Phoenix,
Manchester Mercury and Edinburgh Herald
• Anti-Jacobin sold around 2500 copies a week.
• Loyalist associations also produced and distributed
their own literature.
• Clergy disseminated conservative propaganda in
their weekly sermons.
• Were huge number of loyalist addresses, resolutions and
petitions which were sent to the king in the years
between 1789 and 1815.
• 1789 more than 750 addresses congratulated George III
on his recovery from illness
• Treatment of Louis XVI in France served to strengthen the
institution of the monarchy
• Loyalists banded together to form societies, armed
associations and Volunteer companies to assist the
government to oppose radical views, to suppress disorder
and protect private property.
Association movement
• Association for the Preservation of Liberty and
Property against Republicans and Levellers founded
by John Reeves in 1792.
• Largest political organisation in country with at least
200 regional branches.
• Penetrated all levels of society.
• In 1794 government authorised raising of armed
Volunteer companies.
• By 1804 the Volunteer force was 450,000 men
• French revolution made lasting impact on popular
public opinion in British society of both a
conservative and radical character.
• Loyalism too was a revolutionary force.
• Revolution witnessed all sections of the population
entering politics in some form
• Public opinion became more important
• Backdrop to parliamentary reform movements of the
early nineteenth century.